Over 20 years and more than 400 episodes, Law & Order maintained a remarkably stable image as a respectable, well wrought drama. It has also introduced some of TV’s most memorable characters: Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), and two of my personal favorites, Medical Examiner Elizabeth Rodgers (Leslie Hendrix), the smartest smart-ass on television, and Judge Janice Goldberg (Fran Lebowitz, yes, the author), the most caustic of arraignment judges.
Nominated for a Best Drama Emmy every year between 1992 and 2002 (it won in 1997) and a ratings hit for much of its run, L&O developed a loyal following and spawned five spin-offs (SVU, Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, Crime and Punishment, and this fall’s Law and Order: Los Angeles). That said, its last Emmy nomination came seven years ago, and the show has struggled to win viewers in recent years.
To its last episode, Law & Order told compelling stories about recognizable people solving crimes and punishing criminals. Even so, it was never been a character-driven show. While viewers learned some details about individuals’ lives, we rarely went home with them at the end of a hard day. We did get to see Lenny’s grief over the murder of his daughter, Jack’s struggles with his daughter, the pain of Detective Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) as his wife succumbed to MS, and this season, Anita’s battle with cancer. These stories are secondary to the investigations, frequently meriting no more than a single scene or passing mention (including the surprising revelation following the firing of ADA Serena Southerlyn [Elisabeth Rohm], who asked, “Is this because I’m a lesbian?”). We thought of them in the same way as co-workers we care about and want to succeed.
The series finale featured another of its trademark high-pressure cases, as detectives rushed to stop a disgruntled teacher before he could blow up a school. Here it broke from the regular format (detectives search out the criminal in the first half and prosecutors seek to make their case in the second), offering instead a continuous hour of one tense plot, addressing a significant social issue, in this case, the mistreatment of our teachers, indicting a union that is overzealous in protecting them.
Another change from the familiar structure led to an important resolution to a character issue, as the episode spent long minutes considering Anita’s fate. Not only did she become engaged to boyfriend Frank (Ernie Hudson), but her colleagues also threw a 1013 party for her (“1013” being the police code for “officer in need of assistance”), to help her pay her massive medical bills. As the party went on and the series closed, Anita received the call telling her whether her cancer had returned. It was an immensely last image, and Merkerson, with her whispered words—“Thank you”—showed again how subtlety trumps scene-chewing any day.
For all the finale’s differences from the series’ usual procedures, it’s worth remembering what Law & Order did so often and so well. It famously evoked current events (Season 17’s “Over Here” starred Ben Curtis as an unstable soldier poorly treated dealing by the VA, and “Soldier of Fortune,” in Season 12, explored the blood diamond trade) and tabloid fare, from O.J. Simpson and Mel Gibson to Britney Spears and Jim McGreevey. Repeatedly, the series reminded us that law-breaking affects everyone, following each story from crime scene to courtroom. If verdicts didn’t always go the DA’s way, this too indicated the vagaries of our criminal justice system. After it focused so much light on the way things are, while helping us to imagine how they might be, it is sad to see the Law & Order end.